Last Line of Defense

An Interview with Gen. John Hyten

Gen. John Hyten, head of STRATCOM, is the officer in charge of overseeing our nuclear deterrence and analyzing the threats we face. The biggest of these, in his estimation? Not Russia or China, but our own aversion to risk-taking and innovation.

Octavian Report: How would you assess the current state of U.S. strategic deterrence?

Gen. John Hyten: Our overall strategic deterrence is amazingly strong. It's probably the strongest state it's been in a long, long time. It's fully ready, fully safe, secure, and reliable. The nuclear capabilities are safe, secure, reliable. We have significant advantages in space as well as significant advantages in cyberspace and conventional forces.

The concern I have is not about today. I want to make sure that the commander a decade from now can say the same thing to you I just said. We've got a lot of challenges to make sure that will be the case.

OR: What are those challenges?

Hyten: When you look at our deterrence overall, you see the Minuteman 3 ICBM, you see the Ohio-class submarine with Trident D5 missiles, you see the B2 and the B52 bombers with gravity bombs and air-launch cruise missiles, you see our current command and control structure that dates all the way back to the 1960’s, and you see the nuclear weapons complex that dates back to the 60’s as well.

The problem is each one of those things, because they're so old, is going to have to be replaced over the next 10 years or so. About a decade from now, new stuff is going to come in across every one of those elements. When that happens, we have to make sure those capabilities can handle any threat this country could face.

We're going to have a cyber threat that today we don't have to worry about as much because of the age of our infrastructure. There's an advantage to having old infrastructure. But when it has to be replaced, it's going to be replaced with a more 21st-Century model, and that has to be just as secure as today.

OR: You have spoken before about the fact that since the '60s, we've seen a real slowdown in the speed at which we can build out modernized nuclear capacity. How do we address that?

Hyten: That's actually my biggest concern. My biggest concern is not our adversaries or our potential adversaries today. My concern is not Russia, China, North Korea, Iran, or even violent extremism. My concern is that somewhere during my career, our country has lost the ability to go fast.

I don't know exactly how it happened, but our country went from being very risk tolerant — the Department of Defense was very risk tolerant; we encouraged risk takers — to an environment where we don't encourage people to take risks, where we try to remove all risk from any technology program. And there's no such thing as a technology program that doesn't have risk. So when you try to remove all the risk, that means that we're going to go very slow.

We have adversaries that are going very, very fast in a number of different areas. You watch North Korea building their missile program very, very fast. You watch China moving quickly in space and hypersonics. You watch Russia modernizing their entire nuclear force. They're moving extremely fast, and we have to move fast again.

My belief is that the most important thing we can do would be to give authority and responsibility to the people executing those programs and then get out of their way. We have created oversights that make it very, very difficult for, say, a colonel or a Navy captain who's a program director to execute their program. They have to go ask for permission for almost everything that they do.

I think we should give them the authority and hold them accountable. That means if they fail, they'll be held accountable. Right now, it's actually hard to find somebody to hold accountable, because every decision is made by committees in the Pentagon.

OR: China’s hypersonics and antisatellite weapons have garnered a lot of media attention in recent months. What is your assessment there?

Hyten: It's nothing new. I think for whatever reason the media has noticed and embraced those two particular threats in China. But China has been pursuing those for more than a decade. The first successful ASAT test by China was 2007. That's 12 years ago. They've been continuing to modernize their antisatellite capabilities, their space control capabilities, their on-orbit capabilities, their ground capabilities, their kinetic and their non-kinetic capabilities in space. They're building out, and they're building very, very rapidly.

The big advantage we have is that we have such an enormous, powerful space capability today that it will take some time before any adversary can catch up to that. But China's been moving really fast.

They've watched how we use space to our significant advantage on the battlefield. They've watched it from the first Gulf War to the current conflicts in the Middle East. They watch every military operation we have that's dependent on space, and so they're developing capabilities to deny us space. And they're not being quiet about it.

Hypersonics challenge our capabilities to detect and respond to the threat: a hypersonic weapon basically starts out as ballistic but then goes down very quickly towards the ground and goes into a very, very fast, hypersonic glide. This is a significant challenge for us to continue to detect. That's why my first request is not for our own hypersonic capabilities, which I do think we need, but for a better detection capability.

That requires a different sensor platform. You can do it by radars, which would be almost unaffordable, or you can go to space. If we go to space, we have to be in a low Earth orbit, because they're dim threats and we have to be a little closer and lower to see them.

I'm advocating for those kind of capabilities from a STRATCOM perspective. Again, the need is not immediate. But a decade from now, we're going to need those capabilities in order to deal with these threats.

OR: What is the future of the U.S military in space?